In 1974, a group of Indian arts dealers, along with a small number of artists, started the Indian Arts and Crafts Association to fight the misrepresentation of authentic American Indian art.
Several artists soon joined the association. When the IACA started a wholesale market where retail dealers from around the world could come to buy Indian art that was guaranteed to be authentic, artists made up a large percentage of the exhibitors.
At this time in the Southwest, not many artists were knowledgeable about dealing with retail accounts. The Association offered an opening to connect the two.
Many artists from Oklahoma that joined during those early years, including Bill Rabbit.
Rabbit was a big man, over 6 feet, who had been raised in Casper, Wyoming, where he was the only Cherokee in the school. He got his only art training in grade school and showed his business skills when he sold his first painting for $4 when he was in the fourth grade.
After high school, Rabbit was accepted to the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe but chose to enlist in the United States Army to fight in Vietnam. Interestingly, he served in the 25th Infantry Division with Oliver Stone, who later became an award-winning filmmaker. After Vietnam, Rabbit moved to Oklahoma where he married his wife, Karen, and the two of them began traveling to art shows around the Southwest.
I first met him at an IACA Show in Denver. He was with sculptor Charlie Pratt, who was a little over 5 feet tall. Walking down the aisles together, they looked like the odd couple, but they were great friends. They both had a wicked sense of humor.
The Association was made up of a lot of real characters who absolutely loved Indian art and Native culture. When you put those crazy Indian traders together with all those creative artists, something fun was always happening.
Bill’s paintings were more realistic when he started. Slowly they became more ethereal or spiritual in nature. He won many awards including being honored as a Cherokee National Treasure and being designated as a Master Artist by the Five Civilized Tribes Museum. He was the poster artist for the Gallup Ceremonial and, back when I was the Chairman of the Artist of the Year Committee for the IACA, he won the award with a beautiful painting that we turned into a limited-edition poster to raise money for the association. It was the fastest selling print we ever published and sold out almost before the ink was dry.
Today, his daughter Traci carries on the family’s artistic traditions at their studio in Oklahoma.
Fancy Dancer is one of the most powerful pieces that Rabbit painted. It is the face of a man with his traditional regalia, on a round canvas that is almost four feet in diameter. This painting makes a statement! Bill Rabbit was a good friend and a good man. He is missed by many. His attitude was one of thankfulness and joy. On his web site, Traci has this quote:
“Life has been kind to me.
I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity
to see the things I’ve seen and do the things I’ve done.
But if I died tomorrow,
I would feel so blessed and
I hope that God puts me in charge of painting rainbows.”